Friends and family have been asking: “What was the best part of your trip?” As expected, the sites were mind-expanding and the food tantalizing. But the next time I visit Italy, not much will have changed along those lines. So my answer is: “The people.” We spent three months with sweet and enthusiastic students, faculty, and staff and made side visits to see Italian friends and family.
My Italian professor from high school, with whom I’ve been in contact for nearly twenty years, came up to the villa to speak on Machiavelli’s The Prince. His son, Paolo, a documentary filmmaker, Skyped in to discuss his film Terra di Transito (Land of Transit) about the immigration crisis in Italy. When we went to Rome, we met them for an incredible authentic Roman meal at Giggetto in the Jewish district near the Porticus Octaviae. The next day I had lunch with my high school friend and her husband, and we took a long afternoon walk along the Roman aqueducts in the Archaeological Park a few blocks from their home.
Our semester wound down with a trip to the Casentino Valley. Of all the rainy days to have, this was the best: beside a roaring fire in the common room of the Castello di Porciano, a restored Medieval castle Dante once stayed in that is now a hotel and museum. The students were studying for their final exams; I was preparing for my last class on Petrarch; and Chuck was keeping Ariel entertained.
After leaving the castle we headed to Poppi, where we toured one of the most intact and intricate castles I’ve ever visited, complete with a library containing 14th century copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy (no pictures allowed). From there, our bus wound through the mountains to La Verna, where St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata (and where we saw his 800-year-old blood-stained robes). More things added and checked off my bucket list.
At the end of our semester abroad, we made our way south to the town of Ferentino to see my host parents. This kind and generous couple hosted me for an academic year when I was in high school. I hadn’t seen them in 11 years. My host sister flew in from London and rode down from Rome with my other host sister and her two eight-year-old twin girls. We had a weekend of fun and then my host brother and his wife joined us for Sunday lunch.
Ariel was delighted to meet the twins, who, like her, had Micky Mouse pajamas. We enjoyed fresh veggies from my host father’s garden as well as my host mother’s homemade pasta and famous ricotta pie. (My mouth is watering just remembering it.) Sadly, their fruit and olive trees were scorched by a hard freeze–it seems Tuscany wasn’t the only part of Italy that endured a bitter winter.
While in Ferentino, I also reconnected with my professors and had dinner in the historic town of Alatri, inhabited for nearly 4,000 years. The huge stones of the acropolis, placed without mortar, were legendarily believed to have been stacked by Cyclopes. We enjoyed a rich meal from 9 to midnight while Ariel slept peacefully in the pram.
Saying goodbye to such great people was the hardest part of this trip. I am more aware than ever of the incomparable joy and fulfillment of having a good meal with good people. We have tried to maintain this spirit since being home, not wanting to take anyone or anything for granted.
It’s been a whirlwind summer, though–Chuck worked on the cabin until June, and then we began the slow process of packing up our home and looking for an apartment to rent until we can finish the cabin. I have been hired at Harding University as a Professor of English, so we definitely didn’t want to continue commuting 100 miles a day. We’ll miss our friends and family in Conway, but living close to work means more time with Ariel and less stress.
The Italians have an expression, “piano piano,” or “little by little.” We may not be in the cabin yet, but we’re going from 2500 square feet to a two-bedroom apartment. We’re storing some heirlooms and other keepsakes we’ll have to go through at some point. But the more we let go, the greater the value of what we decided to keep, and the more headspace we have for old memories and the new ones to come.